— Raise your hand if you can describe, from memory, the design on your toilet paper. Anyone?
Among those in the $4 billion industry, toilet-paper design is a big deal. Enough of an issue that a court battle between two toilet-paper titans ended up involving top-notch intellectual property lawyers, the deposition of more than a dozen witnesses and some 675,000 pages of documents.
The story starts in the early 1990s, when Georgia-Pacific Co. rebranded its toilet paper as Quilted Northern, with an embossed design that made it look, well, quilt-like. (YouTube has a Quilted Northern TV ad from 2003.) The company received several trademarks, copyrights and patents for its flush of brilliance.
In 2008, the company discovered that one of its main competitors, Kimberly-Clark Corp., had redesigned its Cottonelle Ultra and Scott Kimberly-Clark Professional with a quilted design.
"Georgia-Pacific unrolled this suit against Kimberly-Clark, alleging unfair competition and trademark infringement," wrote Judge Terence Evans of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, who was not above a few puns in his 17-page decision.
While the arguments involved such qualities as puffiness, bulk, absorption and “nesting,” the tissue issue came down to functionality. The court ruled that Georgia-Pacific’s Quilted Diamond Design is functional and therefore cannot be trademarked.
Maybe the lawyers who lost the case can dab their tears away – with a quilted toilet paper of their choice.